The Rise of Artisan Parenting

Making parenting more difficult makes people feel like better parents.

Posted May 08, 2014

How hard is parenting? The blogs are full of stories about how parenting makes people happy and how it makes people unhappy.  And they are full of stories of parental hardship.  But, being a parent isn’t necessarily equally hard for all people. For example, I have friends who hired night nurses to get up with their infants through those first sleep-deprived months.  Other friends have hired drivers to pick up their children from school and transport them to sports and activities.  Most people I know have a housecleaner who comes in twice a month (my housecleaner is lazy, but I don’t feel right firing myself).  Even errands and chores like grocery shopping can be accomplished with a few taps on one’s phone – bringing direct to the door food, clothing, and pre-wrapped birthday gifts.  Yet in my perusal of all these parenting blogs, it seems like the more affluent parents are doing most of the moaning and groaning.  Endless lines stream past about the difficulties of parenting girls, the difficulties of parenting boys, the difficulties of dealing with food sensitivities, etc.  It seems like it isn’t enough to be a parent, one must be an organic, conscientious, tortured, authentic, artisan parent.  It can be overwhelming (best described in this New Yorker article) Why is this?  Why would people who seem to be advantaged (or at least free from obvious disadvantage) be motivated to make it all so hard?

There are a couple of reasons why people are motivated to make parenting seem difficult.  Fundamentally, it derives from their desire to be regarded as good and caring parents and people’s innate understanding of what psychologists call the attribution process.  The attribution process is how people understand their own and other people’s behavior.  For example, when I see my neighbor take out a full recycling bin, I attribute the full bin to their desire to recycle.  From that, I conclude that my neighbor is environmentally conscious and we share some values.  Artisan parents are doing things that they think observers will attribute to their being good, caring, and intelligent parents.  In simpler times, if their child was clean, polite, and performed well in school, people might have attributed that to good parenting (and being a good parent was less important than being considered a good person). In a society with less economic inequality, more people were presumed to have the same advantages and disadvantages.  When economic advantages are taken into account, it becomes less simple to make attributions about children's successes.

Imagine I tell you the story of Jennifer who was raised by happily-married parents in a 4-bedroom, 3-bath house in a good neighborhood with terrific schools.  Jennifer’s mom has a college degree, but did not work until Jennifer was in the fifth grade.  As a senior at an elite college, Jennifer has a 4.0 GPA.  What would you think of Jennifer? What would you think of her mom? What if the story was of Jessica?  Jessica was raised by her widowed father in a one-bedroom apartment in a bad neighborhood with under-resourced schools.  Her father worked two jobs to support the family, but tried to spend at least two-nights a week helping her with her homework.  As a senior at an elite college, Jessica has a 4.0 GPA.  What would you think of Jessica?  What would you think of her dad? Is Jennifer or Jessica smarter?  Who is the harder worker? Which parent cares the most?  If the parent has a head start by virtue of being able to afford domestic help and the efficiencies of technology, how can you tell which parents care the most and are the best? It is difficult to determine whether a Jennifer’s success is due to societal and environmental factors and privileges or parenting ability.  Therefore, it is harder for us to say that Jennifer has good parents.  Through a process called “discounting”, observers might discount how much the child’s actual ability and the quality of the parenting contributed to success.  In contrast, when the story is about a child who comes from poverty or has other disadvantages, a process called “augmenting” comes into play, and the child is likely to be seen as especially gifted and talented and the parent as especially caring and dedicated. 

Because of discounting, parents try to find ways to show that their child faces some obstacle to success or that there are some inherent difficulties that they are working hard to overcome to help their child succeed.  They are attempting to nullify the discounting effect and achieve an augmenting effect.  This is why, even though they could easily drive their hybrid to a nearby store to buy food, they seek out farmer’s markets and locally-sourced products to feed their brood.  They argue and look for reasons that their way of doing things is better for their kids and making these choices made them better parents.  For these parents, nothing may be more threatening than to hear that some of these choices don’t matter.  If breastfeeding doesn't have benefits for children, if children in daycare fare the same as children with stay-at-home parents, if that carefully curated collection of Baby Einstein is intellectually unremarkable, what does all that effort mean?  How do people make choices and sacrifices that show that they really care and are good parents?  

Parenting has become a competitive sport.  Artisan parenting, finding more complicated ways to do things that should be simple, is just one more event in a that lifelong competition.